Kaifi Azmi (1919 - May 10, 2002) was an Urdu and Hindi lyricist, poet and songwriter.
Kaifi Azmi was born as Akhtar Hussain Rizvi into a family of landlords in the small town of Mejwaan, in the district of Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh. His father, Syed Fateh Hussain Rizvi, though a landlord, took up employment first in a small native state called Balharah as a tahsildar and later, he worked in other areas of Uttar Pradesh. He decided to send his sons to schools imparting modern education, including English, against the stiff opposition of his relatives. However, Azmi could not get this opportunity because his elders wanted him to become a theologian. He was admitted to Sultan-ul-Madaris, a reputed seminary in Lucknow. However, his nonconformist nature created many problems for the authorities of the seminary. He formed a Students' Union and asked all the students to go on strike to get their demands fulfilled. The strike continued for a year and a half. Though the strike was called off, he was expelled from the seminary. This was the end of his elder's dream of training him to become a theologian. Azmi could not seek modern education but he passed various examinations in Lucknow and of Allahabad universities that helped him acquire command over Arabic, Persian and Urdu.
Kaifi abandoned his studies of Persian and Urdu during the Quit India agitations in 1942 and shortly thereafter became a full time Marxist when he accepted membership of the Communist Party of India in 1943. During this period, the leading progressive writers of Lucknow noticed him. They were very impressed by his leadership qualities. They also saw in him a budding poet and extended all possible encouragement towards him. Consequently, Azmi began to win great acclaim as a poet. His initiation into poetry was even more interesting and became a member of Progressive Writers' Movement of India.
At age eleven, Kaifi Azmi wrote his first ghazal ‘Itna To Zindagi Mein Kisi Ki Khalal Pade’ and somehow managed to get himself invited to a Mushaira and over there, he recited a ghazal, rather a couplet of the ghazal which was very much appreciated by the President of the Mushaira, Mani Jaisi, but most of the people, including his father, thought he recited his elder brother's ghazal. When his elder brother denied it, his father and his clerk decided to test his poetic talent. They gave him one of the lines of a couplet and asked him to write a ghazal in the same meter and rhyme. Azmi accepted the challenge and completed a ghazal. This particular ghazal was to become a rage in undivided India and it was immortalized as it was sung by legendary ghazal singer, Begum Akhtar.
At the age of 24, he joined the Communist Party and started activities in the textile mill areas of Kanpur. As a full time worker, he left his life of comfort, though he was the son of a zamindaar. He was asked to shift his base to Bombay, work amongst the workers and start party work with a lot of zeal and enthusiasm and at the same time would attend Mushairas in different parts of India. At Bombay, he joined Ali Sardar Jafri in writing for the party’s paper, ‘Qaumi Jung’.
In 1947, he visited Hyderabad to participate in a Mushaira. There he met a beautiful woman named Shaukat, the two fell in love and were married. Shaukat Kaifi later became a renowned actress in theatre and films. They had two children together, Shabana Azmi (b. 1950), a renowned actress of Indian cinema and Baba Azmi, a noted film cameraman. Like most of the Urdu poets, Azmi began as a ghazal writer, cramming his poetry with the repeated themes of love and romance in a style that was replete with clichés and metaphors. However, his association with the Progressive Writers' Movement and Communist Party made him embark on the path of socially conscious poetry.
In his poetry, he highlights the exploitation of the subaltern masses and through them he conveys a message of the creation of a just social order by dismantling the existing one. Yet, his poetry cannot be called plain propaganda. It has its own merits; intensity of emotions, in particular, and the spirit of sympathy and compassion towards the disadvantaged section of society, are the hallmark of his poetry. His poems are also notable for their rich imagery and in this respect, his contribution to Urdu poetry can hardly be overstated.
Kaifi’s first collection of poems Jhankar was published in 1943. His important works include anthologies of poetry were, Aakhir-e-Shab, Sarmaya, and Awaara Sajde and Kaifiyaat, 'Kaifi Azmi selected poems' translated by Pavan Verma in English, ‘Nai Gulistan’ an anthology of articles he wrote for Urdu Blitz, ‘Meri Awaaz Suno’ a selection of his film lyrics and the script of Heer Ranjha in Devnagri. His best known poems are ‘Aurat’, Makaan’,‘Daaera’,‘Saanp’, and ‘Bahuroopni’.
Kaifi Azmi's stint in films includes working as a lyricist, writer and actor. Kaifi wrote his first lyric for the film Buzdil, directed by Shaheed Latif in 1952. His early work as a writer was mainly for Nanubhai Vakil's films like Yahudi Ki Beti (1956), Parvin (1957), Miss Punjab Mail (1958) and Id Ka Chand (1958). While directors like Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and Bimal Roy strove to create the “New Cinema”, writers like Sahir Ludhianvi, Jan-Nissar Akhtar, Majrooh Sultanpuri, and Kaifi changed the tenor and vocabulary of the Hindi film song, creating a fresh new wave in Hindi film lyrics that lasted many years.
His greatest feat as a writer was Chetan Anand's Heer Raanjha (1970) wherein the entire dialogue of the film was in verse. It was a tremendous achievement and one of the greatest feats of Hindi film writing. Azmi also won great critical accolades for the script, dialogues and lyrics of M. S. Sathyu's Garam Hawa (1973), based on a story by Ismat Chughtai. Azmi also wrote the dialogues for Shyam Benegal's Manthan (1976) and Sathyu's Kanneshwara Rama (1977).
As a lyricist and songwriter, though he wrote for numerous films, he will always be remembered for Guru Dutt's Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) and Chetan Anand's Haqeeqat (1964), India's greatest ever war film. Some notables films for which he wrote lyrics include Kohra (1964), Anupama (1966), Uski Kahani (1966), Saat Hindustani (1969), Shola Aur Shabnam, Parwana (1971), Bawarchi (1972), Pakeezah (1972), Hanste Zakhm (1973), Arth (1982) and Razia Sultan (1983). He also played a memorable role of Naseem's grandfather in Naseem (1995), a touching film centered around the destruction of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya.
He was the recipient of Padma Shri one of the Indian Government's highest civilian awards. Besides he was awarded the Uttar Pradesh Urdu Academy, the Sahitya Academy Award for his collection Awaara Sajde, Special Award of Maharashtra Urdu Academy, Soviet Land Nehru Award, Sahitya Academy Award; Lotus Award from the Afro-Asian Writers' Association, and President’s Award for National Integration. In 1998 Maharashtra Government conferred on him the Jyaneshwara Award. He was also honoured with the prestigious Sahitya Academy "Fellowship Award". In 2000, he was conferred the first Millennium Award by the Delhi Government and Delhi Urdu Academy. He has also been honoured with a doctorate from Vishva Bharati University, Shantiniketan.
He won the 1970 National Film Award for Best Lyrics for Saat Hindustani and the 1975 Filmfare Award for the screenplay and dialogue of Garam Hawa. Kaifi Azmi was also the subject of a documentary film called Kaifi Azmi (1979), directed by Raman Kumar. In 1997, he recited his own poems for Kaifiyat, an audio book on his collected works. Kaifi Azmi died on May 10, 2002. He was survived by his wife, daughter and son. His autobiography is included in a collection of his works, "Aaj Ke Prashid Shayar: Kaifi Azmi".
"Kaifi aur Mein," a play based on his life, his works and the memoir of his wife, Shaukat Azmi - ‘Yadon Ki Rahgujar’ (Down Memory Lane), was written and performed by Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi, and performed in India as well as abroad in 2006. Another play, directed by Rani Balbir, ‘Waqt ne kiya kya hasin sitam’, based Kaifi Azmi’s life and writings was staged in 2005, and received rave reviews.